Gym bunnies and junkyard dogs: new words in the June 2019 update

Gym bunnies and junkyard dogs: new words in the June 2019 update

Genuinely ‘new’ words, unique character strings created by a particular individual for a specific purpose, don’t usually pass into common usage, or get into dictionaries. Those that do make it often begin life as commercially-invented proper names, or are coined by writers to describe imaginary phenomena, and they survive because they are found to serve a more generic purpose – examples of such made-up words already in the OED include nylon, Dalek, heffalump, and Klingon, all apparently arbitrary formations (although often influenced by existing words). More usually, however, ‘new’ words and phrases are actually old words or elements put into previously unfamiliar formations and made to serve new functions. It’s well known, for example, that the modern selfie is formed from the very old noun self– (a word dating from the medieval period) and the equally old diminutive suffix –y/ie.

The OED additions this quarter are another reminder that every time we create a batch of new words and senses they’re usually not really new, but are just old words that have been used in innovative ways.

So how are these new items shaped from old or familiar linguistic components? One of the most common means is through novel collocation, or compounding, where two or more old words are put together in a new way to express a modern concept. Surprisingly, many of these ‘new’ formations go back much further than you’d expect them to. Examples in this range include coffin dodger, a humorously dismissive term for an elderly person considered as close to death but enduring against the odds (dating from 1954, though there’s an earlier, rare American use meaning ‘a heavy smoker’ that goes back to 1900); curtain-twitcher, someone who watches their neighbours in a furtive way (from 1940); confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out information which supports one’s existing beliefs (from 1977); gym bunny, a person who spends a lot of time exercising at a gym (from 1986); and mail-order bride, a term used to denote a woman who relocates to marry a man after conducting some form of long-distance communication. This apparently modern phrase was first applied in the Decatur (Illinois) Herald in 1906 to a woman moving from the east coast of the United States to a marry a remote Midwestern farmer.

Another way in which ‘new’ words are formed is by the blending of parts or sounds from two or more other words and the combination of their meanings (these are sometimes called ‘portmanteau words’), or by the addition of new suffixes to old words. Well-known examples of blendings already in the OED include boxercise, motel, glamping, and bromance. In this range we have added schlockbuster, a term first used in 1966 to describe a film or book which is very commercially successful but is regarded as having no artistic merit (from‘schlock’ denoting something shoddy or inferior and ‘-buster’, something that breaks records); swellegant, a blend of ‘swell’ and ‘elegant’ used to describe a person or thing that’s very stylish, elegant, or fashionable (recorded from 1907, but popularized from 1956 by a Cole Porter song in the film High Society); quillow, a quilt that can be folded into a pocket to form a pillow (from 1989); and most recently twittersphere, from Twitter + –sphere, the notional environment in which people use Twitter, or Twitter users considered collectively (first recorded in 2006).

Many of the new words and phrases we add to OED Online are actually very old, but just new to the OED, having been overlooked in the first edition, perhaps because the editors didn’t have the evidence to include them at that time. Amongst the most interesting of these items are very old proverbs and sayings. This release includes the proverbs happy (or blessed) is the bride the sun shines on, a saying used to express the superstition that good fortune will attend the marriage of a bride whose wedding is on a sunny day (our first example is from the poet Robert Herrick, 1648), and its earlier but now less-used and somewhat macabre companion, blessed is the corpse the rain falls on, used to express the superstition that a person who is buried on a rainy day will fare well in the afterlife (perhaps from the idea that the heavens are weeping in sympathy) with a first use from 1607. Another old proverb from the newly-revised range of bride words is the phrase three times a bridesmaid and never the bride, oralways the bridesmaid, never the bride, dating from 1858 – a saying that has been used both literally, of a woman who is unlikely to marry, and figuratively, to describe a person who always seems to be in a secondary position.

Finally in this release we see, as ever, that the influence of popular and contemporary culture can’t be underestimated in the creation of new words and phrases, or the giving of new life to old ones. A number of new items in this release are original literary or media creations, such as the term Brideshead, which is used as an adjective to describe the world of the decadent English upper classes of the early 20th century after both the 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and the TV adaptation of 1981. The upper-class twit, perhaps a satiric personification of the Brideshead character, was the creation of the Monty Python team, and was widely popularized by a comedy sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1970.

But even more often words and phrases already existing in the language are given a new life or much broader public exposure through song lyrics, films, and television. Pink Floyd did not coin the figurative phrase another brick in the wall (it dates from 1867), but their use of it to describe the individual as an insignificant component in a much larger structure or system was what popularized it. And while few of us have ever encountered a junkyard dog, a vicious animal first referred to in a US regional newspaper in 1936 (‘Those junkyard dogs do make night hideous for the neighbors’), almost everyone knows from the Jim Croce song Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown (1972) that a person who’s meaner than a junkyard dog is very, very mean indeed.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.